The art of technical writing

To a non-practitioner, the art of technical writing is a nebulous pursuit to be avoided at all costs. The territory is ripe with jargon and Rube Goldberg devices that are not to be trusted. Besides, who in their right mind would want to be a "Technical Writer" (whatever that is)?

But to the artisan, technology and language are the subject and medium in which we create our masterworks.

Structure from chaos

Like a duel or chess match, there are rules to follow when writing technical documents. Outsiders view the ever-changing laws of grammar as a source of frustration. We, however, hold tightly to them, knowing that these rules alone allow us to create elegant sentences from a vast universe of words and phrases. Strunk & White are our Rembrandt and Da Vinci, and we painstakingly struggle to emulate their technique, knowing that such payment is the price one must pay to acquire skill.

Jargon forever attempts to waylay us as we build order from chaos. Writing user-friendly documents from raw ideas is like breaking trails through thick undergrowth. For each tangle of dense language we hack away, another grows just beyond. But there is a certain sense of relief that comes from looking behind and seeing the clear path we've made for others to follow.

The beauty of zeros and ones

Computer chips are not forgiving. There is no signal for "sort of." When working with computers, you either know what you're doing, or you don't, and the computer is happy to remind you when you've made an error. Whether it's the blue screen of death or a well-worded prompt, the message is the same. "Either you screwed up, or I screwed up, and I'm not budging until you fix it."

This is when most people reach for the phone to call support, or test the durability of their keyboard by slamming their head into it. (In college, I had a sociology professor who kept foam bricks around for such moments. He would hurl them at his television when it annoyed him. Not only did he feel better afterward, but he avoided any expensive consequences. He was a great teacher.)

Technical writers, however, react differently to error messages. Like puzzles, error messages offer the promise of a logical solution; we can't resist them.

It isn't that we have nothing more exciting to do. It's that we have a deeper appreciation for how technology functions, and a natural desire to understand the elegant operations of machines. There is beauty in all things. Just as a digital photograph of a stunning landscape can evoke emotion, so can an understanding of the underlying logic necessary to produce such an image from a stream of zeros and ones.

For those of us who have a passion for language, and the curiosity to appreciate technology, technical writing is an incredibly rewarding field that will offer never-ending challenges and opportunities to learn and create.

Technical writing is an art. Those who practice it with devotion will find creative fulfillment within.

Related post: How to become a technical writer.